Exhibition explores centuries-old letters from migrants

A three-day exhibition at the Herbert Art Gallery which opens next week is set to explore an array of letters- some centuries old – from migrants who describe their experiences moving away from home to new pats of the world.

The letters have been digitised as part of an AHRC funded project led by Coventry University, provide a colourful picture of life from emigrants’ perspectives and show how language has changed over the years.  Professor Hilary Nesi is leading Coventry’s involvement in the project.

One moving letter from 1907 is written by Finnish emigrant August Aalto of Humboldt, California to his friend Hilma Aerila of Laitila, Finland. Many Finnish migrants moving to the United States between 1980 and 1930 were men who arrived alone and took up dangerous work as lumbermen or miners and they often wrote back to girls in their home villages hoping to find Finnish wives.

August writes to Hilma on March 30th 1907:

“No other sorrow or grief bothers me like my perpetual sorrow over you not writing to me. I have… waited for your letter as for the most precious golden treasure, but my hopes have been completely betrayed. But I will never get tired… my destiny ordained that I didn’t have the means to stay in my country of birth. I had to leave for a far-away, foreign land to make a living… Would it be possible to send me your picture? It would be fun to look at it… Good bye, please feel well. Wishes your loving wandering boy.”

The digitisation project which has seen Coventry University collaborate with a range of partners including the University of Helsinki and the Immigrant History Research Centre (IHRC) at the University of Minnesota, will help create new ways to make historical letter collections available to the public.

The exhibition will run from Monday 19th – Wednesday 21st May in the Studio at the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, with Tuesday 20th May reserved for school parties. The exhibition is free to attend and prior booking is not required.

An end of project symposium will take place at Coventry University on Monday 19th May from 2pm-5pm, to discuss the outcomes of the project, the digitisation and mark up of historical correspondence, and the importance/challenges/opportunities of interdisciplinary research in diaspora studies.

An evening talk, News from Home: Themes and Functions of Letters to Irish Emigrants in Colonial Australia will also be held on 19th May at 6.30pm. This talk will be given by the renowned Irish migration scholar David Fitzpatrick, Professor of Modern History at Trinity College, Dublin and author of Oceans of Consolation: Personal Accounts of Irish Migration to Australia.

Both the symposium and evening talk are free to attend; tickets can be booked via the Coventry University website.




Nicola Vaughan